By the end of the debacle that was the 41-38 season-opening loss to Rutgers on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, I was sure of only one thing: I was ready for Mike Leach to fire defensive coordinator Mike Breske. Preferably before he could get on the bus.
But one of the reasons I write this feature on Monday is because it gives me a couple of days to step back, take in more information, and try to get away from the emotion of the game which, in this case, was total embarrassment. And after 72 hours to think it over ...
Actually, nope. I still don't really have any confidence in the direction of this defense.
In a lot of ways, Thursday night was eerily reminiscent of another Seattle Game for me: The 2011 contest against Oregon State. No, the score certainly wasn't as lopsided, and I wasn't nearly as angry on the way home Thursday as I was on that Saturday night three years ago, but I found myself having similar thoughts.
In particular, that was the night I realized it just wasn't working with Paul Wulff, that it almost certainly never was going to work, and that a change had to be made. (Interestingly, Bill Moos reached the same conclusion that night.) And I think I've reached the same conclusion regarding the leadership of the defense, which has vacillated between respectable and god-awful for the past two-plus years.
We knew the 2014 defense faced some challenges replacing a couple of key players in Deone Bucannon and Ioane Gauta, but when you're into year three of a regime, you expect that the cupboard will have been stocked enough to avoid a quick regression back to Wulffian levels. And yet, that's what we witnessed on Thursday. The secondary was as big a mess as we all feared, but worse, the front seven that featured five juniors and two seniors -- the unit that was supposed to be the strength of the defense -- had absolutely no answers for a Rutgers rushing offense that was 89th in that category by S&P+ a year ago.
Now, I know the Scarlet Knights' new offensive coordinator, Ralph Friedgen, is a an excellent coach. Maybe his game plan was just that magical. Maybe Rutgers only needed someone to unlock the key to the talent acquired in those pretty good recruiting classes they've had.
But I'd submit that a Big 5 Conference coordinator ought to have some strategic answers for what's happening on the other side of the ball, and the Cougs did little more than flail away for the duration of the contest. Most concerning is it's not as if this was a one-off; WSU has given up an average of 41 points in its losses since Breske took over, including a whopping 47 points per game in the Cougs' seven losses in 2013. Yes, there have been some more respectable totals in WSU's victories, but too often the defense has completely failed to maintain contact with the opponent.
Interestingly, the advanced metrics don't have as pessimistic a view of the Cougars under Breske. Here's how the WSU defense looks via Football Outsiders' F/+ metric, in which teams and units are measured by an opponent-adjusted percentage relative to average:
F/+ would have you believe that Breske has taken a defense that was one of the worst in the country for the previous four years and turned it into an ever-so-slightly above average unit. But I think most people would agree that this sure doesn't seem to pass the eye test. Why the discrepancy? I think there are a couple of things at play here.
First off, the advanced metrics looooooooove the offenses in the Pac-12. And so when WSU gives up 55 points to Stanford (18th in F/+), 62 to Oregon (6th) and 55 to Arizona State (11th), well, that's because those offenses are really good! And when WSU gives up just seven to USC (37th) and 17 to Arizona (25th), it reflects very well on the metric. Heck, even holding Auburn (7th) to 31 and Washington (22nd) to 27 looks pretty good to the system.
What the system doesn't know is that Nick Marshall was firing passes 10 yards over receivers' heads in week one, and that USC was a dumpster fire under Lane Kiffin in week two, and that Arizona very well could have been looking ahead to the following week's matchup against Oregon (whom they steamrolled), and that the Apple Cup is the Apple Cup.
I'm not trying to discount those performances. They happened, and they were great. But when you start wondering why "ever-so-slightly above average" just doesn't feel right, these things matter.
Then there's the matter of how excited we should be for being "better." Is WSU's defense better than it was under Ball? Of course. Those defenses were historically bad for a major conference program, especially one that has had some pretty awesome defenses over the years. But is the defense under Breske good enough to take us where we want to go?
This is where the pessimism starts taking over, especially in light of Thursday night. It's not the result that's got me so troubled -- it's the process that got the Cougars there.
After two years and three recruiting classes, that's what the back four looks like? That's how the linebackers look in their run fits? Brian Anderson talked at length about that on the podcast with Michael Preston, so I won't rehash it here, but for a senior and two juniors to be so blatantly poor in their discipline and tackling, that's ... troubling.
It's the sort of thing that really makes you question the ability of the defensive staff to "coach 'em up," so to speak -- especially when contrasted with the offense, which looks to be hitting its stride in the third year under Mike Leach's guidance. Leach has infused the best of Wulff's recruits with his own talent and created a unit that appears ready to explode.
Why, after three recruiting classes, is there not a better option at corner than a fifth-year senior who has never sniffed the field? Why is there not a better option at backup SAM than a fifth-year senior who once was a walk-on safety? Why is there not a better option at safety -- where there were no particular injury concerns beyond Isaac Dotson -- than a running back who converted in the past two weeks?
That all these guys were pressed into duty would suggest that there's simply a talent deficiency on defense. Maybe that's because there's been less of an emphasis on recruiting defense. Maybe WSU just hasn't gotten as high of quality of recruits on that side of the ball.
I asked one of our researchers, Kirt Onthank, to pull together the 247sports composite recruiting data to take a look. Before getting to the conclusions, here's what it looks like in (nerd alert!) box plot form (0.80-0.89 would be considered a "three-star" recruit):
If you don't know how to interpret this, that's OK! Really all you need to know from this is a couple of things.
First: Yes, recruiting is better under Leach -- the median scores (the dark bars in the middle of each box) are higher, as are the tails, which means the best are better and the worst aren't as bad. In statistical terms, random variation alone can't explain the difference between Leach and Wulff.
Second: No, there really isn't much difference between the offense and defense under Leach. The defense is a little behind (in terms of average, it's 0.8244 vs. 0.8338, which actually is a pretty small difference) and doesn't have the high end outlier that the offense does (that's Gabe Marks, by the way), but both units are essentially landing -- in general -- the same caliber of low- to mid-three-star player.
Again, in statistical terms, random variation could be the explanation here. According to Onthank, "The variation in recruit on each side of the ball more than swamps out the small difference in average. According to the data, Mike Breske is getting the same quality of recruits that Leach is on the offensive side."
And yet, we've seen precious few recruits come in and make an immediate impact on that side of the ball. Worse, after two seasons, we see few of those guys unseating Wulff's recruits in year three. If what we witnessed Thursday is to be believed, either there's a problem evaluating the talent for scheme fit and/or potential at WSU, or there's a problem with developing players.
Neither of those two reflects well on the defensive staff led by Breske. And it makes me wonder if we haven't already seen what we need to see, a la Oregon State 2011.
That said, if you're looking for reasons to be hopeful, there is this: The data says the talent is there. And my eyes told me on the re-watch that WSU wasn't as physically overmatched as it looked live. The defensive line had more or less contained its reckless forays into the backfield by midway through the second quarter, and the linebackers' horrendous performance -- where they were far too often just in the wrong places, and failed to wrap up on the rare occasions they were in the right places -- ought to be correctable. There have already been changes to the personnel in the secondary.
Let's hope something changes. Because if that's the defense we're getting for the next 11 games, I have a hard time finding a path to six wins.
What We Liked
I loved that the offense did exactly what it was supposed to do to a bad secondary. Outside of some early hiccups, the Air Raid was as efficient as we've seen it. The 9.5 yards per attempt -- a quick and dirty measure of the explosiveness of the passing attack -- was a full 1.5 yards better than WSU's previous best against a major conference opponent (8.0 against UCLA in 2012).
Since we have enough problems with the defense, it was great to see that there really are no similar concerns with the offense. Would we like to see a better rushing attack? Sure. Would it have been nice of the offense to go win the game on the final drive? Of course. But the offense did what should have been enough to win the game on what it did.
It's only game one, and it's hard to know if it was more Rutgers being awful or WSU being awesome. We'll find that out in due time. For now, I'm enjoying the fact that they passed the first test with flying colors.
What Needs To Improve
I won't go as overboard as some who are flipping out about the running game, but in order for the Air Raid to be effective, the running game has to be a credible threat. It obviously wasn't on Thursday. That ultimately didn't stop the passing attack from being effective against Rutgers, but it likely will against the better defenses of the Pac-12 -- all you have to do is remember how hard it was to throw in 2012.
Given that 60 percent of the offensive line was comprised of a pair of sophomores and a freshman making their first starts, I'm optimistic that this can improve and develop over the next couple of weeks against weaker competition.
PJ mentioned Connor Halliday, Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers in his POTW post, so I'll go with a different receiver: River Cracraft, who I am unabashedly falling in love with.
I don't care about the fumbled punt. Well, I do, but I'm not going to let it get me down on the kid, who has been nothing short of a stud since arriving on campus. He just knows how to find space, and he catches just about everything thrown to him.* Tim Brando compared him to Wes Welker, presumably because he is
white and plays inside receiver and is awesome like Welker. Prepare yourselves for a lot more of that over this season and the next two, because this kid is very good.
*Unless there's an arm in between his hands and his body. :-(
Which Player Underwhelmed?
Of all the underwhelming players on defense, middle linebacker Darryl Monroe was far and away the underwhelmingist. And that is really saying something. Rutgers handed the ball off a whopping 37 times, on which Monroe could come up with just three(!!) solo tackles.
Sometimes, he got washed out by a lineman, but far more often he was out of position as he either failed to react to what was in front of him or simply guessed at holes and ran himself right out of the play. This led to a number of missed tackles -- at least a half dozen by my count, at least a couple that could have taken place in the backfield -- including the final indignity of getting run over by Paul James for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Let's just say I would not have wanted to be Monroe in that film room on Friday. Clearly more is expected out of him -- Monroe is whom Leach chose to take with Halliday to Pac-12 media days -- and I know we all believe he's better than this.
Again, if you're looking for positives, he shouldn't ever be that bad again. Lordy, I hope not.
The Cougs travel to Nevada for what was supposed probable win No. 2. Now WSU is somewhat in must-win mode. GASP! Yeah, I used the term "must-win." No, it's not really a must-win. But when you've started the season -1 in games you probably need to win to keep the program moving toward another bowl game, that's not good. Going to -2 doesn't torpedo the season, but it makes six wins very, very difficult when you play five of your eight conference games in the Pac-12 North.
The Wolf Pack started the year with a 28-19 win over Southern Utah that was impressive in at least one way: Nevada ran 96 plays!
Since the game does not appear to have been broadcast anywhere, I have no real idea how a team runs the ball 55 times and throws it another 41 and scores just 28 points without something like four or five turnovers. Alas, the Wolf Pack had only two and averaged a pedestrian 5.7 yards per play -- which actually was less than SUU's 5.9. They also punted the ball eight times. The best clue comes from Nevada's 22 third downs, of which they converted 14. It looks like they methodically worked up and down the field, repeatedly converting third and manageable, only to stall -- for all those plays Nevada only made it to the red zone four times. Explosive was not the word of the day.
That said, Nevada's quarterback Cody Fajardo is a guy who should scare you a little as the typical dual-threat Pistol QB. He has nearly 10,000 yards combined between passing and rushing in his career. Maintaining discipline is key against the power option attack of the Pistol and ... well, let's just say WSU is going to need to develop some discipline in a hurry.
Defensively, the Wolf Pack were respectable against the pass but allowed 224 yards on 25 carries on the ground. This could be a game that's ripe for getting the rushing attack right. At least, I hope that's what it is.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PDT on Friday and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.